I have complained elsewhere about the loss of the “might have” form in English, which is now rare even in printed periodicals. Here, from an article about an FBI agent who tried to warn about one of the 9/11 hijackers, is the first instance I have seen of the older and newer forms in hand-to-hand combat:

Through hearings this week and some in the future, Hill is painting a picture of missed opportunities. Individually, none may have prevented the attacks. But collectively, they might have unraveled the plot.


  1. I’m sorry, has might have really disappeared? It seems alive and well to me.

  2. I didn’t say it had disappeared, I said it was rare. It’s rare enough that I celebrate aloud to my wife when I hear it on the radio. It will remain alive as long as those of us who use it are alive, but I would bet that in fifty years it will occur only in conscious allusion to historical usage (and, of course, in quotes from our laughably archaic time). Of course, this is an American viewpoint; it may be doing better in other parts of the English-speaking world, but I’ve noticed “may have” predominating in people with English accents as well.

  3. In speech it sounds quite ordinary to me, in regular use in daily conversation unless people are attempting to speak in a higher register, i.e., sound more formal or posh.

    For example, “If you’d looked up a bit earlier you might have seen the plane crash” (apart from the weird circumstances) sounds completely unexceptional to me.

    “If he’d thought about it a bit more he might not have adopted that course of action.”

    Also this one:

    “Where could he be?”
    “He might have slipped down to the pub for a beer.”

    Perhaps this is a difference in dialect, but in Australia, at least, I think it’s perfectly normal.

  4. It sounds completely unexceptional to me too — because it’s part of my dialect! “He may have adopted” will always sound weird to me. But I guarantee you that to my grandsons the latter is not only natural but the only thing they’re used to hearing. Maybe things are different in Australia, but you can’t rely on your own feelings of normality; I’d like to see a study of usage across the English-speaking world.

  5. (Also, thanks for bringing life to this post after almost 18 years!)

  6. Here’s something I just found in the New York Times in a column by Rory Smith, a perfectly good writer: “How much that played a role in Biles’ need to take some time and space only she will know, and she is under no compunction to share […].” That shows that the word “compunction” is no longer generally understood, as is also evidenced by the existence of online help pages like Compunction vs compulsion. Whaddayagonna do? Language changes, and the elders gripe about it.

  7. Yes, I’m used to seeing less commonly used words mixed up. It sounds like the person doesn’t know the proper meaning and usage. “Flout” and “flaunt” are another example.

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